York U debate: How far is too far when it comes to religious accommodation?

Is it appropriate to allow university students decline to participate in a class assignment because it would force him to interact with female students, or should they be expected to set their “firm religious beliefs aside” in their search for higher education? And how should technology play into the decision?

That question is at the centre of a debate ongoing at Toronto’s York University, where a sociology professor and university brass have clashed over whether a student’s religious belief should allow him to skip class assignments that bring him into contact with women.

The debate stems from a decision made by Professor Paul Grayson in September, when a male student in an online sociology course asked to be excused from an in-person assignment that would bring him in contact with female students. The students claimed “firm religious beliefs” as his reason for not wanted to intermingle with female students.

Grayson denied the request on the ground that it marginalized and punished female classmates. York University officials, however, approved the student’s request for religious accommodation and ordered Grayson to allow the student to remain absent from the session.

The student acquiesced and ultimately completed the project. In the meantime, however, the professor and university have locked into a battle that could write the playbook for future arguments around religious accommodation.

"If for religious reasons you exempt a student from interacting with females, there are religious reasons people could advance for not interacting with blacks, Jews, gays, you name it," Grayson told SunNews Network. "In the bible and in religious practice you can find a basis for that kind of appeal."

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University Provost Rhonda Lenton retorted in a statement that every accommodation request is considered on its own merits. She said the circumstances of this case led the university to conclude the accommodation could be made.

“A deciding factor in this case was that it was an online course where another student had previously been given permission to complete the course requirement off-campus,” Lenton announced. She later told CBC’s Metro Morning that, “Had it not been an online course, it is my view that … the advice that would have been given to the professor and to the student is that this is a course that is being delivered on campus and in person, and part of the assignments are to work with other students in the class.”

Lenton notes that another student was allowed to skip an in-person assignment, suggesting it was an accommodation the professor was willing to make under some circumstances. Grayson said in interviews that a student taking the course from Egypt had previously been shown leniency due to his or her distance from campus.

Indeed, details published in the National Post suggest that the student at the centre of the debate enrolled in the online sociology course out of a belief that it would allow him to finish his degree without intermingling with other students – specifically females.

If that is the case, then it could be seen as an attempt by the student to work within the framework of York – accommodate the university and its inclusive environment, you could say – to balance his religious beliefs with his desire to complete his degree.

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It is not clear what religion the student holds, and Grayson has said he consulted several religious leaders before coming to his decision. It should be noted, however, that when the professor denied the accommodation request, the student agreed to participate without further complaint. He even thanked Grayson for the way he handled the situation.

Lenton said that while the student and teacher were able to come to an agreement, “the broader issue of religious accommodations in secular universities remains an important societal concern that warrants further discussion.” The Ontario Human Rights Commission is reviewing the case.

Part of that review should be the role technology has played in all of this. Is it truly reasonable to expect religious accommodation through online courses? Should such a course allow members of society to harbor personal beliefs that will surely come to a head later in life?

Regardless of whether the course is online or not, the student in question will graduate with a degree from York University. Is the school comfortable attaching their reputation to a student who may, upon entering the job market, beg out of meetings because female co-workers and bosses will be in attendance?

York University should have one set of standards across campus. Accommodation is important but reason should still be a factor, whether the student is logged on from home or sitting in a classroom.

(Photo courtesy of Canadian Press)

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